A recent deal signed by the Westlands Water District and the Obama administration can be likened to the bank bailout of 2008: The wealthy and powerful corporate interests that caused the crisis are allowed to exit the burning aircraft with golden parachutes.
In the deal, which requires congressional approval, the administration will forgive the district’s $375 million interest-free repayment obligation to taxpayers for construction of the federal Central Valley Project, the massive apparatus that delivers water from the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta to the corporate farms of the western San Joaquin Valley. The agreement also converts the district’s current two-year water contracts to a permanent contract for up to 890,000 acre-feet (1.1 billion cubic meters) of water annually (subject to the availability of water). For the sake of comparison, the City of Los Angeles uses only 587,000 acre-feet in a typical year.
Why is the Obama administration taking such a lopsided deal? The agreement would settle litigation over an unfulfilled federal requirement to provide drainage to the district, which farms lands laced with highly toxic selenium. When these lands are irrigated for crops and flushed with additional water to remove salt intruding into the root zone, vast quantities of selenium-contaminated water sluice into San Joaquin Valley aquifers and waterways, imperiling human health, fisheries and wildlife from Fresno to San Francisco Bay.
While the agreement brings many benefits for Westlands, it will lead to continued water deficits in California. It will provide the district with permanent deliveries of subsidized water at low prices without imposing acreage limits. It will increase the stress on our scant water resources, penalize cities and small farmers and devastate the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta and San Francisco Bay.
There is a better, cheaper and more equitable way. A new report by EcoNorthwest, an independent economic analysis firm, confirms that 300,000 acres (120,000 hectares) of selenium-tainted land in the Westlands Water District and three adjacent water districts could be retired at a cost of $580 million to $1 billion. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Geological Survey have reached similar conclusions. Retiring this land and curbing the water contracts associated with it would result in a savings to California of up to 455,000 acre-feet of water, or enough for 2,600,000 urban water users.
Further, land retirement is significantly less expensive than Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to build a massive tunnel system to divert water from the Sacramento River, designed for the benefit of western San Joaquin Valley agribusiness.
Agriculture consumes 80 percent of California’s developed water while accounting for only 2 percent of the state’s economic output. Our water supplies are limited in the best of times, and drought and climate change are only exacerbating the crisis.
Subsidizing corporate agriculture on impaired and toxic lands is hardly a wise and reasonable use of our water. Congress must not approve this catastrophically flawed agreement embodied in HR 4366 (Valadao). Californians need to tell our federal legislators, particularly senators Feinstein and Boxer, that we don’t want another egregious and inequitable corporate bailout.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Water Deeply.